Carp on the street is a Czech holiday tradition

Visitors are often shocked by the street sales of live fish for Christmas

If you are new in Prague, you might be a bit shocked by the sudden appearance on busy sidewalks of plastic tanks filled with live carp, which are butchered on the spot as people buy them. Some expats refer to the event as the annual Carpocolypse. Actually, it is a Czech Christmas tradition.

While turkey, goose or roasted meat is the typical holiday meal in many countries, in much of Central and Eastern Europe fish is front and center. Carp is most common in the Czech Republic, where it is raised in artificial ponds. The street vendors for carp only appear in the days leading up to Dec. 24 and are not seen again for another year.

Carp can be bought live from the street vendors or cut into steaks. It is more common these days in urban areas to have it cut up, as home butchery is a lost art. In the past, people would more commonly take it home live and let its swim in the bathtub for a few days. This was in a way to ensure that the family got a fish and that it was fresh, as supplies in the communist era could not be counted on. But now people can get fresh fish up to the last minute without a problem.

Older people can recount that as a child they enjoyed having a carp in the bathtub as it meant a few days without having to bathe. Many kids also played with the fish and gave it a name. Some people can recount being in tears at having to eat their new pet for Christmas dinner, and recall the sound of it being hit over the head before it was cooked. Having the fish cut into steaks beforehand saves the new generation of kids from that particular trauma.

The carp is usually served breaded and fried, with potato salad as a side dish. Which family member makes the best potato salad is an ongoing dispute in many homes. Some families compromise by having a little of each from the grandmother and other holiday chefs, being sure to praise each version.

A tradition related to carp is that if you keep a scale in your wallet you will have money all year long.

There are several other odd Czech holiday tradition. One is that if you fast from meat on Dec. 24 in the evening you will see a golden pig in the sky. There are also three types of fortune telling for the coming year. One uses hot lead poured into water, another uses boats made from walnut shells and wax candles and the third uses a sliced apple. Family experts from the older generation help to interpret the signs. The apple is to predict heath, while the other methods are more general.

Some families anoint the foreheads or cheeks of the children with honey to ensure they stay sweet all year and everyone will love them.

The strangest tradition is pushing the family dog backward out of the front door to ensure the home is safe all year. Not so unusual is mistletoe, which is often painted gold. It can be hung over the dinner table. Kissing under the mistletoe ensures a year of love.

Presents ore opened on the evening of Dec. 24, and not Dec. 25 in the morning. Gifts are brought by Baby Jesus (Ježíšek), as St Nicholas (Svatý Mikuláš) along with an angel and devil have already been around on the evening of Dec. 5. Versions of Baby Jesus also visit Slovakia and Hungary. Due to globalization, the Western concept of Santa Claus is becoming more common.

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